1770's Stays - Complete!

Posted by Donna on 10:05 AM with 1 comment
Staying Together

I started my 1770’s stays in December, a novice historical costumer with a gleam in my eye and a spring in my step. Now, after hours and hours of handstitching, a lovely new callous on my middle finger from jabbing myself repeatedly with the needle and a cramp in my hand, my stays are complete!

My tale of woe is not intended to dissuade anyone from making their own stays. On the contrary. Now that I have a fully finished pair, I am thrilled at what I was able to accomplish. I’ve never taken on anything like this before so I didn’t have any idea how complicated or time consuming stitching nearly 200 channels then boning and joining the 10 sections together would be. But that was the easy part. Quarter inch linen tape covered the joining channels attached with minute stitches; it was a delicate task trying to roll the stays and attach the tape without hearing the unmistakable crack of a reed snapping within a channel. Adding the kid leather binding was the most abusive on my poor fingers and hands.  Sure, in theory, it’s like attaching seam binding to a hem, but it's definitely not as easy as attaching seam binding to a hem!  I bent and contorted 3 needles pushing my way through the layers of leather, linen and wool and lost count of the expletives.

The blue checked lining was added in pieces; the center covered stay sections one and two, flanked by two side pieces covering sections 3, 4 and 5. The tabs were covered separately, so they can easily splay over the hips.

Now I understand why men were stay makers!

Pamphleteer and founding father Thomas Paine was the son of a stay maker. Paine himself apprenticed at the trade for seven years, but his efforts as a stay maker failed. After he sailed for America in 1774 he never practiced the staymaking trade again, but his inability to bone up (no pun intended) were never forgotten. In London, Paine's revolutionary writings were dismissed and ridiculed as the works of "Tom, the Bodicemaker."

Francis Oldys (pseudonym), in the work 'The Life of Thomas Paine, the Author of Rights of Men' (1791) wrote about stay makers: ‘The art of staymaking require patience, skill and the Quakerly ability to sit for hours in busy silence, cutting, and shaping woolen cloth, boning between each row of stitching, and lining the patterned stay with linen. Women of the notable classes wore stays or corsets, stiffened with whale bone and laced at the rear, especially underneath their mantuas, a style of dress called the robe á l'Anglaise by foreigners.’

While I consider the callous a badge of honor for a job well done, I’ve invested in some serious hand cream and ordered another batch of coin leather thimbles. (The dog ate the others. I wish I was kidding.) They’ll be here in time for me to start my next pair of stays! (Okay. I am kidding. I’ve got other things to finish first.)

Many thanks to Steph and Hallie at The Sign of the Golden Scissors for the great stays workshop, their patience and for answering my too frequent emails.